By Jennifer T. Haley, MD, FAAD
Winter is often accompanied by unwanted changes to skin. Your skin may develop dryness, itching, and a cosmetically unappealing sallow and lackluster appearance. Understanding how your skin reacts to seasonal changes and what you can do about it will keep it glowing all year long.
Externally: In winter, air lacks humidity and dries up natural moisture in the skin even quicker than normal. Windy environments wick moisture from the skin even further. Unfortunately, indoor heating dries the inside air, too, further enhancing skin dehydration, so there really is no escape.
In addition, skin, nail and hair growth slows down when the days are shorter. When skin cells don’t turn over frequently with fresh cells replacing them, these old, adherent cells give the skin a dull appearance. The slower growth of your nails and hair also makes them more brittle and prone to split ends and cracks/peeling.
Modify your Skincare Regimen
Your skin’s needs change in winter, so you should also change your skin-care regimen. Formulas that work well with your skin most of the year might suddenly irritate your sensitive winter skin. It may be best to initially seek the expertise of a dermatologist for a proper skin analysis with skin-specific recommendations, as this will save you both money and hassle in the long run.
A general guideline for most skin types would include switching to a gentle cleanser and toner without alcohol. Gently exfoliate those dead layers of skin every few days, two to three times a week and quickly hydrate afterwards. Exfoliation removes adherent dead skin cells and reveals newer, healthier-looking skin. It also stimulates the skin to produce new skin cells. Without proper exfoliation, these skin cells act as an insulator, preventing moisturizer to absorb externally.
All skin needs a moisturizer. If you are acne prone, look for “non-comedogenic,” “oil-free” moisturizers during the day. At night, most women will need a heavier cream moisturizer immediately after washing to seal in moisture. Alpha hydroxy acids are excellent because they exfoliate dead skin cells while also attracting moisture to the skin. Two of my favorite moisturizers are SkinMedica AHA/BHA moisturizer during the day and SkinMedica Dermal Repair at night for face and neck. The Intraceuticals line with hyaluronic acid is also amazing at hydrating and plumping up dehydrated skin.
The biggest mistake most people make is overusing soap. The suds that form are a result of the soap binding with the small amount of moisture you have on your skin and removing it. Always choose a soap-free cleanser such as CeraVe or Cetaphil. And NEVER shave with soap. It will also cause itchy legs with red inflamed areas around each hair follicle. You can safely shave with each of these cleansers or an inexpensive fragrance-free conditioner.
While in the shower, keep it lukewarm. While hot showers may provide a relief from the frigid temperatures outside, it will wreak havoc on your skin. Hot showers strip the skin of its natural moisturizing oils. Immediately after exiting the shower, gently pat your skin with a towel, leaving your skin a bit damp, and apply a moisturizer within three minutes to lock in moisture.
Moisturizers are available as oils, creams and lotions. The choice you make largely depends on the dryness of your skin and what feels best. Oils are greasy and slippery, but they seal in moisture well. Coconut oil, avocado oil or olive oil are some natural options to feed your skin from the outside in. Creams aren’t as greasy, often absorb when you rub them in or when you let them sit for a few minutes, and they do a great job at hydrating skin and holding in moisture. Lotions tend to add the least moisture, but they absorb quickly so they don’t feel so greasy. I am unimpressed with most lotions, largely because they contain alcohol, which helps hasten their absorptions but also causes the skin to become drier. Moisturizers containing ceramides tend to work best for most people. My favorites are CeraVe cream and Cetaphil Restoraderm lotion (no alcohol). If someone is very dry or highly allergic to many ingredients, I recommend Vanicream.
Body brushing (using a dry, natural bristle brush to sweep the surface of your whole body) once a week or using the Clarisonic body brush will help exfoliate dead skin cells, increase circulation to the skin, and allow the moisturizer to penetrate better resulting in a more vibrant skin tone.
Avoiding fragrances in laundry detergents may also be beneficial for sensitive skin. All Free and Clear, Tide Free and Gentle, and Dreft are some options. Fabric softeners are almost universally irritating to the skin and are best avoided.
Eat for Healthy Skin
It is essential to continue to eat fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of water throughout the year. You may not be sweating as much, but your skin is continuously evaporating moisture in the low humid winter environment. So, if your urine isn’t clear, drink more water, especially reverse osmosis alkaline water.
If you are not already doing it, take a fish oil supplement— 1,000-2,000 milligrams daily, preferably with vitamin D 2,000 IU daily. Add healthy fats into your diet, such as wild-caught fish, raw nuts, cold-pressed olive, coconut or grape seed oil and avocados.
Feed your skin from the inside with as many food-based nutrients as possible. Foods like wild Alaskan salmon and shrimp are excellent sources of astaxanthin, an antioxidant that gives a healthy color to your skin and reduces inflammation. Increasing the healthy fats in your diet will help to regulate the skin’s oil production. Avoid excessive alcohol, as this will certainly dehydrate your skin. The jury is still out on caffeine, as it has antioxidant properties and some health benefits, including enhanced athletic performance. Most experts will agree that fewer than three cups a day will not be harmful, and as long as you are drinking plenty of water, dehydration should not be an issue.
At home (daily, weekly): The Clarisonic Pro brush uses the same technology as the Sonicare toothbrush, incorporating a gentle sonic frequency to clean, soften and smooth skin. It has a variety of brushes for different skin types. Gentle exfoliation scrubs should also be used a few times a week. Avoid harsh abrasive scrubs that may make your skin angry and red and cause broken blood vessels.
In the office (monthly): DermaSweepMD is a pumped-up microdermabrasion-type device that uses two steps. First, an exfoliating brush with suction will clean out pores and remove dead skin cells followed by a silk brush that infuses a variety of serums specific for your skin’s needs. With Intraceuticals Treatments, cooling, calming oxygen under pressure is applied to the skin’s surface, delivering targeted serums that instantly restore vitality and glow. The daily homecare products improve hydration in the skin by utilizing multi-weight hyaluronics, essential vitamins, botanicals, antioxidants and peptides.
High-Altitude Skin Care
Did you know that the strength of the sun’s UV rays increases as the elevation increases? There is less atmosphere to block out the sun’s burning UV rays. During the winter, you also get extra exposure because UV rays reflect off the snow back at you. If you are planning a trip to the mountains, plan on wearing a water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30-plus containing zinc oxide for your best coverage. One trick that I find useful is to carry small tubes (ask your dermatologist for testers) in your pockets and apply to your face and lips while sitting on the lift.
Recycled oxygen in airplanes will dehydrate your skin, so hydrate before flying and drink plenty of water. If traveling somewhere hot and humid, bring a salicylic acid or glycolic acid cleanser and toner and a light moisturizer. I like SkinMedica Purifying Cleanser and Toner or Replenix acne clearing cleanser and toner. If traveling somewhere cold, pack a thicker moisturizing cream. When traveling to a windy climate, apply a thin layer of Aquaphor or Vaniply ointment to act as a barrier from skin stripping winds. Don’t exfoliate in windy environments.
Don’t Forget Sunscreen!
Sun protection is just as important during the winter as it is during the warmer months, especially if you travel to a high altitude. If it is daylight and you don’t need a flashlight to see outside, ultraviolet (UV) rays will be getting to your skin and wreaking havoc by damaging DNA and permanently destroying collagen. UV also damages the skin barrier, making skin more prone to dryness. If you are traveling to the mountains, you are that much closer to the sun. The UV rays at elevation and their reflection off the snow makes them stronger and more damaging. So, whether you are staying home, traveling to the mountains or to the beach, choose the right sunscreen and use it wisely.
In winter, I will often recommend a moisturizing sunscreen with SPF 30-plus, such as EltaMD Facial. I also like EltaMD tinted, as it works both as a sunscreen and a light foundation/cover-up. Plus, it is oil-free and appropriate for all skin types.
For exercising, skiing or water activities, Vanicream makes a great water-resistant sunscreen that is chemical free and doesn’t burn your eyes. Since it is heavier, it will also protect your skin from windburn and chapping. And don’t forget your lips!
All Sunscreens Are Not Created Equal
Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a measure of how well a sunscreen blocks ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, responsible for sunburns. Unfortunately, there is no current rating system for the level of protection a sunscreen may provide from the more deeply penetrating ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which are present all year long. UVA is primarily responsible for aging the skin and giving it that dreaded leathery appearance. As a savvy consumer, you must read labels and look for greater than 5 percent zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are the only two ingredients that do a great job at protecting your skin from both the UVA and UVB rays. Remember to apply sunscreen to all exposed areas, unless of course, you want your neck, chest, and hands to age quicker than your face.
Dr. Jennifer Haley, a board-certified dermatologist with a degree in Nutrition Science from Cornell University, enjoys sharing her knowledge about skin health, nutrition and exercise. Dr. Haley has been an NPC bikini competitor, consultant to the U.S. Capitol, and currently enjoys an active lifestyle in Scottsdale, AZ and Park City, UT with her husband and three boys.